City Confidential

Put a perfect stranger, a kind face and an attentive ear in a conducive setting and, voila,

you have an impromptu confessional.

Meet some of Birmingham’s best confidantes.

Photos and text by Liesa Cole

Keeping secrets can be quite a burden. I have been ruminating about this lately because a friend gave me a beautiful and chilling book titled, My Secret, compiled by Mike Warren, the founder of 1-800-SUICIDE.  The book is a poignantly disturbing collection of artful post card confessions from the Post Secret project. People from all over the world are invited to relieve their psychic distress by anonymously “confessing” the secrets that haunt them onto a postcard and mailing it in. Submissions are regularly posted on-line.

Now, when it comes to secrets, it occurs to me that there are really two categories. The first is the type we often can’t wait to pass along. This is usually the case when the tantalizing tidbit we possess compromises someone beside ourselves. The juicy nugget may be proffered with a few colorful exaggerations awash in feigned concern, as in “I am only telling you this so you can pray about it.” As we Southerners know well, this technique is the socially accepted form of gossip this side of the Mason Dixon. But it is insidious and I confess I have been guilty of it.

Now, The other type is the variety we are desperate to keep under wraps. This particular brand usually involves our own deeply personal and shameful truth that we deem too embarrassing or even possibly incriminating to divulge. We are willing to go to all manner of extremes to keep this blemish concealed. It is this second type of secret I am focusing on here.

Ancient Greek tragedians, Shakespeare and countless others have written tales through the ages depicting this timeless human foible. “Out, out, damned spot!” from the sleepwalking Lady Macbeth comes immediately to mind. You probably know well the familiar scene: After planting the murder weapon used to kill the King, the Queen is consumed with secret guilt. Obsessively rubbing her hands to remove the imagined blood, muttering the famous line, she is desperate to purge the all-consuming guilt but equally committed to guarding her incriminating secret. Oh, what tangled webs we do weave.

But, hopefully, the secrets most of us harbor are far less sinister than Lady Macbeth’s doozy. Maybe it is a sexual preference we are reticent to reveal, an indiscretion of a moment’s passion now deeply regretted, a lapse in judgment, even our own blameless victimization or gullibility can manifest as a secret shame. The possibilities are as vast and varied as humanity itself.

For some of us, the effort to maintain secrecy will adversely affect our lives, our relationships, even our physical and mental health. Whether due to psychological hard wiring or the conditioning created by millennia of universal religious teachings, most of us have an innate need to confess. Somehow, the act of speaking our transgression or regret alleviates a degree of inner turmoil.  We get the pesky thing “off our chest.” But, naturally, we are loathe to damage our reputation or risk altering our esteem in the eyes of friends and family. As a result, we seek a compromise; a way to divulge the concealed information, relieve some portion of the accompanying guilt, and somehow manage to avoid a nasty consequence. It may not provide for absolution, but, hey, if we can get a little relief from the strain of toting this weighty nuisance around all by ourselves, we tend to go for it.

This is where the perfect stranger comes in handy. Put a kind face and an attentive ear in a conducive setting and, voila, you have an impromptu confession chamber! Curiously, it is infinitely easier to spill our most intimate beans in the company of a person we hardly know than those closest to us. But, if you consider the fact that a stranger is far less likely to judge us or mete out a punishing consequence, a perfect stranger may provide the perfect answer.

All of the people featured here readily affirmed my hunch that they periodically find themselves on the receiving end of a stranger’s deep, dark secret.

After several decades tending bar at the convivial Red Lion Lounge in Homewood, Taffy could fill an encyclopedia of vices with the revealing tales her customers have shared. Of course, a nagging guilt could lead even a teetotaler to strong drink. That, combined with the reduced inhibition of alcohol, creates a potent confession cocktail.

For Father Alex Steinmiller of the Holy Family School in Ensley, just walking around in public sporting a clerical collar seems to invite all manner of humanity to drop their guard and reveal their failings and even felonies. This priest of the Passionists order reports that fellow passengers on airplanes spontaneously present their shortcomings to him. And in his work with gangs that spans almost three decades, he has heard chilling confessions of the most heinous crimes, including murder. (Yikes!)

In Kele Idol Sparrowhawk’s world, a day at the office means being bent over another person’s bare flesh, wielding a hand held machine that delivers piercing pain and permanent ink. The intimacy and vulnerability necessary to create body art foster an instant bond of trust. “People do tell me things. I have heard it all….from the most heart-breaking, to the most absurd. If someone trusts me enough to mark them for life, why not trust me to hear some of their most intimate secrets?” Kele has also made life-long friends with people who ambled into the parlor (Aerochild) for a tattoo.

Miss Anita has spent her entire adult life in the restaurant business. I spotted her pouring coffee at Birmingham’s oldest remaining barbeque joint, Carlile’s, on Southside. As I suspected, she has served up many a plate over the years to customers dishing out tales. More than a few road–weary truckers, hungry for food and a compassionate ear have filled their bellies and lightened their psychic load in the company of Miss Anita’s homespun hospitality.

R.C. is known as Birmingham’s “Singing Cabbie.” He has been driving up tips in this town for years by serenading passengers with his deep, velvety voice. R.C’s big, warm personality combined with the fact that he works the night shift in the club district sets the stage for some hefty revelations. “Oh, you better believe I have heard some titillating stuff over the years, he says in the most Barry White way you can imagine. “Yes, indeed. Crazy stuff people climb in this cab and tell me. Nothing shocks me anymore, baby.”

Dr. David E. Myers, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of the book, “Heartful Parenting.” He is so gifted at listening and encouraging people to open up that he has made a career out of it. Just stare at the image of his kind, compassionate face and see if you don’t start mumbling about something you have been bottling up. When I asked him about this phenomenon, he explained, “There is a tension created in the psyche when we hold things inside ourselves. This tension is greatly reduced in the act of revealing.” When someone feels safe in the presence of a stranger to be open and revelatory, Myers explains that the attentive person is exuding what he calls “a right receptive energy”.

As a second generation barber and co-owner of Etheridge Brothers Barber and Style Shop, downtown, Willie Etheridge will tell you that grooming is just part of the service he provides. “People come in here and get comfortable. Pretty soon they are unloading all kinds of concerns that they don’t want to worry their families with. It might be about finances, health, even romance. Just yesterday I had a young lady in here asking me to play matchmaker for her!”

Well, whatever you call it, these people definitely have it. And so, you might say, these and others like them are doing a public service of sorts by facilitating the deeply personal and therapeutic act of confession.

Of course, if you never have a wicked thought, commit an embarrassing act or misdeed, you have no need for secrets of your own. But, if you are like the rest of humanity and slip up occasionally, you will be pleased to know….there is an app for that!  Seriously, You can now wipe your slate clean with “Confession,” A Roman Catholic app, available through iTunes for $1.99

2 Responses to “City Confidential”

  1. April Wienecke says:

    This is such a great article. Thank you for featuring Kele Sparrowhawk. I have confided in him during and post tattoo. Trust is a great thing, regardless of how it’s earned.

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